Faith: Is It A Gift or Does it Keep Us From Reality?

Faith: Is it a Gift or Does it Keep us from Reality?

(Reverend Christopher McMahon)  July 7, 2013

A few weeks ago I called a friend of my uncle’s to console him on the loss of his wife of 62 years.  He thanked me for the call and proceeded to tell me how powerful his loss was.  He then said to me, “I don’t know if you are a person of religion but my strong faith tells me she has gone to God in peace and love.”  I reminded him that I am a minister and was a person of religion although I did leave out the part about being a Unitarian Universalist minister and one who considers a broad range of theological possibilities.


That conversation reminded of just how powerful faith is many people’s lives.  But faith is, however, complex.  In some cases it provides hope and consolation.  In others cases it seems to provide the basis for bizarre beliefs and in the worst of scenarios, it provides justification for heinous acts. 


 As defined (in wikipedia), Faith is the confident belief or trust in the truth or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing.  The word faith can refer to a particular religion or to religion in general.

As with trust, faith involves a concept of future events or outcomes, and is used conversely for a belief  “not resting on logical proof or material evidence.”  Informal usage of the word faith can be quite broad, and may be used in place of trust or belief.

Faith is most often used in a religious context where it almost universally refers to a trusting belief in a transcendent reality, or in a Supreme Being and/or this being’s role in the order of transcendent, spiritual things.

Faith is, in general, the persuasion of the mind that a certain statement is true.  It is the belief and the assent of the mind to the truth of what is declared based on the declarer’s authority and truthfulness.

Perhaps the best known discussion of faith in Christianity comes from the Gospel of John where over the course of several days following his resurrection, Jesus appears to Mary and to several of his Apostles.  In the Gospel of John Chapter 21, it says:

“Now Thomas, one of the twelve called the twin, was not with them when Jesus had appeared to the others.  So the other disciples told him. We have seen the Lord.”  But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in his side, I will not believe.” 

“Eight days later, Jesus’ disciples were again in the house and Thomas was with them.  The doors were shut but, according to the Gospel, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands; and put out your hand and place it in my side; do not be faithless but believing.”  And Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God.”  Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

I grew up in Catholic religion classes hearing this story over and over – and I tried very hard to have the type of faith that Jesus was talking about.  In other words – believe because you have been told something purported to be religious truth – don’t question religious authority because “blessed are those who have not seen yet believe,” as the Gospel says.

In the end, though, I could not believe and I began a long and lonely spiritual journey from Christianity and through the world religions.  Along the way, I realized that I cannot have faith in anything unless it makes sense to me and it appears to have historical accuracy and meet the test of being rational.

It isn’t just Christianity that relies on faith from its adherents.  Actually every religion to varying degrees requires faith.  Buddhism, for example, requires a degree of faith and belief in the possibility of enlightenment.    Faith in Buddhism centers on the understanding that the Buddha is an “Awakened Being.”   Buddhist faith also accepts the role of the Buddha and, as a superior teacher, his teachings about the truth of his Dharma (spiritual Doctrine), and in his Sangha (community of spiritually developed followers).  Buddhist faith is intended to lead to the goal of Awakening or Enlightenment or Nirvana.

In my view, the less knowledge a person has about the world and creation, the easier it is to have faith in religious doctrine – however human made it most of it certainly is.  A few summers ago, I visited Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts which is a replica of the original Pilgrim village and, right next door, the Indian settlement that was set up by the local Wampanoag Indians to monitor what the Pilgrims were doing.

***(Plymouth Colony was  in operation from 1620 to 1691 and along with Jamestown was the first of the English settlements.  Contrary to what a lot of kids are taught in school, Jamestown and Plymouth were not the first European settlements. The Spanish has already been in America for a century in Florida and New Mexico.  Saint Augustine Florida and Santa Fe New Mexico are the oldest cities in America!)

Many of the Pilgrims could read but they certainly were not well educated.  Over the course of the previous decades they had developed a brand of Protestant Christianity that was as simple in belief as it was absolute.  The world was a certain way according to the Pilgrims and their belief – their faith system was unassailable and there was no separation between their religion and their daily way of life or the way they were governed.

I call people and groups like the Pilgrims “two dimensional” because these type of people only see the world in the dimensions they look at.  An imaginary two dimensional creature, for example, could see length and width but it could not see height.  Though the third dimension clearly exists, imaginary two dimensional creatures are unable to perceive it.  Their faith in the reality of their world and the universe is based solely on their understanding of length and width.  We might call this type of faith simple or uneducated because we have had the opportunity and knowledge to see the third dimension and to realize that reality is not just two dimensional.

One of the great challenges to religious faith is knowledge because knowledge begets uncertainty.  In my experience, the more I learn, the less I seem to know of reality.  If anything, knowledge provides more and more understanding of the complexities of reality and it makes it difficult to accept simple explanations such as – “this happened because it was the will of God.”

Remember a few years ago when 33 miners in Chile were trapped deep in a mine?  I remember watching with hope and fascination as the miners were rescued.   I also read with interest a newspaper article which was entitled, “Which God was with the Miners.”  This came from a comment one of the miners made when he was rescued.  When asked about the other 32 miners he said, “Oh no, there weren’t 33 of us down there – there was 34 because God was with us.”  This comment prompted a number of religious folks to decree that it was their particular faith and their prayers that enabled the miners to be rescued.  These included Seventh Day Adventists, Baptists, Catholics, Mormons and a bunch of other Evangelicals.  In short, many individuals claimed it was their view of God and their version of prayers that rescued the miners.  I view with as simple if naïve faith.

In general fundamentalists religions display a similar type of simple faith – a faith that accepts as a given, religious creeds and dogmas and a worldview without questioning anything.   No better example of this can be given than the thousands of young Muslims (men and woman) who have killed themselves during the past decades as they have killed others in suicide bombings.  Their “faith” told them that their acts of terror and suicide were holy and blessed by God even though the Qur’an expressly prohibits suicide and the killing of innocent people.

Part of the problem with what I term “simple faith” is that often times people want to believe what they are told is a religious truth.  Believing that you understand why things happen the way they do; believing that taking a certain action or actions in life will lead you to eternal bliss or to enlightenment is comforting.  Such faith enables people to endure great hardships and great tragedy and it gives confidence that, in the end, all will be well because God or the universe has ordained it to be so.

This is also why some people refuse to question religious beliefs and why people refuse to educate themselves on the history and formation of their religion and their religious scriptures.  Knowledge can be a dangerous thing for knowledge will, in the end, create uncertainty and uncertainty often leads to fear and a loss of faith and as one loses their way, their worldview and their ability to cope with the world can be severely challenged.

I have often met very intelligent, well educated people who work in scientific or engineering professions where they explore and challenge scientific and engineering theory everyday and, in so doing, they broaden the frontiers of human knowledge and yet, at the same time, some of these people blindly accept religious doctrines, creeds, and scriptures without question.  It is as though they live in two worlds – one of science and the rational and one where only acceptance and faith apply.

Although I always find myself questioning religious beliefs, I always endeavor to be respectful of other people’s faith because their faith is, indeed, the way that many people cope with the hardships and tragedies of life.  If someone who has lost a loved one believes that “God has taken this person to be with “him” in heaven,” I might personally find this illogical and irrational, but I am not going to express my doubts to this person.  I usually find myself simply reassuring the person that their faith has meaning.

So – there is another important question to ask with regard to religious faith – particularly as a Unitarian Universalist.  Can a person have religious faith despite the fact that they cannot accept any particular religious philosophy or creed?  I think the answer can be yes but it depends upon your general worldview.

To begin with, it depends upon a person’s fundamental viewpoint of the universe we live in.  It depends upon how a person answers three questions:

  1.  Is there something more to the universe than what we perceive through our science, technology and observation?
  2. Is there meaning and purpose in the universe?
  3. Is there meaning and purpose to my life?

Most religions – even non theistic religions such as Buddhism conclude that there is something more to the universe than what we humans can perceive.  In other words, there is reality we cannot perceive.  Certainly the “God religions” of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam believe that God exists outside of the universe and God is the creator.  But one does not have to believe in a separate creator being to believe that there is more to the universe than what we can perceive.  God can be defined as a force or reality imbedded into the fabric of the universe we see and know and experience.  In this view, there is “God” but God is merely part and parcel of the universe and all physical laws, and energy and matter that form the universe.

As to whether there is meaning and purpose to the universe, this is a critical question of faith.  The idea that there is no meaning and purpose to life is embedded in nihilistic philosophy discussed at length by numerous philosophers including Fredric Nietzsche.  I find nihilism to be rather depressing to say the least and I, for one, simply cannot accept it because it is both illogical and irrational to me given the magnificent order and beauty of the cosmos.  If a person believes that there is no sense of meaning and purpose, it is rather difficult to have faith in ultimate realities that are beyond human perception.

Finally, as to whether or not there is meaning and purpose to my specific existence, this too is a critical component of faith.   To begin with, consider the question, “is my particular existence as a person a random happening or is it part of some grand design I am unaware of?”  This is obviously a really fascinating idea to ponder.  From strictly a scientific standpoint, each of us is a random happening brought about by trillions of random happenings since the beginning of time.  In other words, my particular existence as a person, and yours, is a fantastic chance event.  Just to consider one of a trillion random happenings – if one of your 16 great, great, great, grandmothers had not met your great, great, great grandfather in the particular way she did and happen to conceive on a particular day through a particular circumstance, the continuing chain would have halted and you would not be here today.  Was this all chance or is there some unknown or unknowable force at work that enabled all of this to be so?

In my perhaps very human view, there is another component to meaning and destiny and faith in the universe and that is the idea of ultimate justice.  If there is meaning and purpose in the universe, is there also justice?

Why should I have been born in an affluent country, into a good family; been given the blessings of a great education and great career opportunities when there are so many in the world who have nothing and will die young in poverty and hopelessness?  If there is meaning and purpose and justice in the universe – how can so many suffer?  Is it just a random chance happening that I have all that I do?   Did I just luck out in the countless random happenings in the ebb and flow of the universe or is there something more I cannot perceive and cannot understand?

Obviously, these are very, very difficult questions and the answers are very hard to come by.  Traditional religions develop answers for these questions through scriptures, creeds, dogmas and belief systems.  But if I cannot accept these human made religious belief systems and the faith they support – can I still have faith too?

My answer is that I can.

It is true that I respect and am often fascinated by the religions of the world.  I have studied all the major religions of the world and have marveled at many of the ideas and beliefs that they express.  Still – I find that all of them are human made and, accordingly, do not express ultimate truth.  But within them there seem to be ideas that I resonate with and ideas that have enabled me to have faith – even though I don’t have faith in specific beliefs or creeds.

I do believe that science and scientific observation are critical in understanding the reality of the universe but I do not think that science can or ever will answer ultimate questions because science and human thought are finite realities.  There is, in my view, something greater than the universe that we perceive.  I call this the “God Event.” 

I do not pretend to be able to define it except to say I believe it is imbedded in the fabric of the universe.   Perhaps it is, as the Buddhists say, the ultimate reality – the oneness of all things.  Perhaps it is true as the 12th Century Islamic mystic Al Hallaj said – “God and I are one.”  And as the Chinese Tao Te Ching states, “the Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The Name that can be named is not the eternal Name. But – the Tao that can be told is the mother of all things.”

As to meaning and purpose – I think there is ultimate meaning and purpose in the universe.  The very reality of evolution tells me that meaning and purpose are at work every day in the living world.  The love of a father and mother toward their newborn child, the determination of an athlete to succeed, the passion and gifts of an artist, the need for humanity to explore the unknown – all of these, and more, are indications to me that there is meaning and purpose to the universe.  I see it every day in my life.

As my faith tells me that there is meaning and purpose in the universe – this tells me that there is meaning and purpose in my life and my existence and so, through continual searching and through meditation and prayer, I try to continually find meaning and purpose in my life and, in turn, I try to impart a positive difference in the world around me.

Am I a random chance happening or am I here as a person from specific happenings?  Was I destined to be?  This is where the questions become impossible to answer but somehow I do believe I am part and parcel of this magnificent creation.  I don’t want to begin to describe why because to do so would create yet another human made religious belief system – so I let it go with a faith that my life does have meaning and purpose.

And finally – is there justice in this universe?  Wow – what a hard question to answer since all around us, we see and live injustice every day.  But, in the end, I believe in ultimate justice – not in the sense that there is a heaven for good people and a hell for bad people but through a sense that just as the universe continually evolves for the better and from our primal beginnings human beings have developed compassion, love, and justice – so too do I think the universe is ultimately just.  I don’t know just how this happens, nor when, but I believe it does in ways we cannot know.

Faith is a very personal thing.  Often it is based on the ideas and beliefs of a particular religion – but it is still possible to have faith without accepting particular human made creeds and dogmas. 

A number of years ago as I stood in Sloan Kettering Hospital watching a friend of mine dying from cancer, I told him that in the end, everything would be OK.  He said to me, “but you are a crazy unbelieving UU minister, how can you say that?”  As I began to answer the question, I realized the faith that was really alive within me.  “Because,” I said, “I know – all I can say is that somehow I feel it and I know everything will be OK.”  He died shortly after.

C.J. McMahon

July, 2013 *

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